Will you explain the rise and set of the sun and the words ‘sabab’ (way) and ‘sad’ (tract) mentioned in the verses 85-90 of the chapter al-Kahf? How does the sun set in murky water?

The Details of the Question
Will you explain the rise and set of the sun and the words ‘sabab’ (way) and ‘sad’ (tract) mentioned in the verses 85-90 of the chapter al-Kahf? How does the sun set in murky water?
The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

One (such) way he followed. Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water: near it, he found a People: We said: "O Dhu al Qarnayn! (thou hast authority) either to punish them, or to treat them with, kindness." He said: "Whoever doth wrong, him shall we punish; then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before). But whoever believes, and works righteousness he shall have a goodly reward, and easy will be his task as we order it by our command." Then followed he (another) way. Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun. (al-Kahf 85-90)

Eventually, he reached the place where the sun set. He reached the end of the place in the west of the earth with reference to the place where he had settled. According to the explanations given by tafsir scholars, he reached the west side of the Atlantic Ocean. They state that the islands called "Halidat" used to be regarded as the beginning of the geographic longitudes. However, today we do not exactly know what “Halidat” islands are.  To sum up, when he reached the Far West, he found that the sun virtually set in black murky water. Or, according to the pronunciation of the word as “hamiya”, he found the sun set in a scorching spring. Tafsir scholars interpreted the word “ayn” as water spring, “hamia” as murky and “hamiya” as scorching; it means he found the sun set in a murky or scorching spring. Thus, what is meant by that water spring is the ocean and especially the setting point of the sun in the horizon. Dhulqarnayn, who saw some of the sultanates end in the countries that he passed through on the way to the west, looked at the horizon when he reached near the ocean in order to see the setting of the sun; the vast ocean looked like a limited water supply and like the basin of a well surrounded by the sky compared to the vastness and highness of the property of Allah. However, it did not look like clear water that can be drunk but like a bottomless well with dark mud; when the sun set in the horizon, the fading sunshine with its colorful reflections seemed as if it was setting into dark mud, the point where the sun set was like a spring that got blurred and dark; it also looked like scorching ember with its color and vapor. That is, the impression made in the conscience of Dhulqarnayn by the setting of the sun was like that; the most exemplary meaning of this observation is to see that the magnificence of the world, which is bound to stop at a point, is limited and to understand that it is ephemeral.   

Then, after doing what he was to do in the west, he followed another way. He followed a way that led to the east from the west just like the sun that set in the west turned to the east; eventually, he reached the point where the sun rose. That is, he reached the point where the sun rose on to the earth without a barrier; that point might be the east coast of Africa but it is understood that the point is the Far East Asia. When he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun. They did not have any buildings or clothes. They were being tanned by the sun. As a matter of fact, there are some naked people like that in the Sudan and Australia today. What is meant by it, as it is known in general, if there is a significant covering and shelter, even tents cannot be regarded as significant coverings; so, it includes most of the people living in the desert.

In the verse, Allah mentions what He gave Dhulqarnayn and his characteristics. What are they? :

a) "Verily We established his power on earth."

We can explain "We established his power on earth" as follows:  "We settled him on earth". Besides, acting upon its usage in verse 56 of the chapter of Yusuf, we can interpret it as "We gave full authority to him in the land".

b) "We gave him the ways and the means to all ends."

The word “sabab” means "a means or tool that is used in order to reach or realize something". In this sense, we can interpret as "knowledge that will lead man to his aim and ideal". The best means through which something is reached or to realized is knowledge. There is no means greater than knowledge.  

Now, we will deal with the relationship between establishing (settling) and obtaining knowledge. Knowledge can be obtained in the secure environment provided by the establishment. It is difficult to obtain knowledge in nomadic societies.

We can say information precedes knowledge or vice versa. Allah granted him great bounties by providing him secure environment and means to reach his end.

The attribute of Dhulqarnayn, which means two horns or man of two ages, can be used to establish a relationship between those two things. One of the horns can be “security” and the other “knowledge”. Security and knowledge are among the most important elevated values. Is it not possible that those two horns denote those two values?   

"One (such) way (sabab) he followed."

If we interpret the word sabab as "means, tool, knowledge", we will explain it as follows: Dhulqarnayn followed the means or knowledge that Allah gave him. He used legitimate means in all of his activities. He did not resort to illegitimate means in order to reach and realize his aim. He followed legitimate means and true knowledge. That is, the third characteristic of Dhulqarnayn is that he always used legitimate means, that is, true knowledge. He never resorted to illegitimate means; he never followed them.  

Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water: near it, he found a People: We said: "O Dhu al Qarnayn! (thou hast authority) either to punish them, or to treat them with, kindness." There are significant deductions we will make from the verse we are interpreting (al-Kahf, 86):

a) Dhulqarnayn preferred to move toward the west first. It is stated that he reached the place where the sun set. The concepts the sun and the west (setting) were used together. Since the sun represents light, what Dhulqarnayn does is to follow the knowledge called the light.

Just like the sun, the knowledge and the prophets rose in the east. The lights of the sun go toward the west; similarly, it is necessary to send the light of the knowledge to the west and to educate people. Knowledge and civilization went to the west from the east. Dhulqarnayn became the example of that movement; he is a teacher that presented it as an aim to the mankind; he showed it with his attitude. He went there not to take something, that is, knowledge and civilization but to enlighten the west; he preferred to go there.

b) He found the sun set in a hot spring. There is a figurative expression in this sentence. Dhulqarnayn saw it like that. This state is proof that the earth is round, in the form of a globe. With the movement of the world, the sun looks as if it has set. In fact, the sun does not set. On the one hand, the world rotates around is own axis; on the other hand, it rotates around the sun.
The word 'ayn’ in the verse means "spring, place where water springs from". In Arabic, the word “ayn” is also used for the word “eye” since tears come out of eyes. The word “hamia” means hot. If it is pronounced as hamiya, it means hot; if it is pronounced as hamia, it means mud, wet clay.

It means the journey of Dhulqarnayn reached the place where the sun seemed as if it set; that is, the point that cannot be transcended. It is not mentioned where that point is.

c) Dhulqarnayn found a people there. That people committed all kinds of evil; they had lost their virtues. At that point, the identity of Dhulqarnayn as a teacher and even as a statesman becomes remarkable.   

d) Allah addressed Dhulqarnayn and told him how to treat that people; however, He left the decision to Dhulqarnayn. He was left free to punish or to treat them well. We understand the following from that statement:

1. Dhulqarnayn went there probably with an army, not alone. For it is impossible for one person to punish a people. In the next verse, the use of the word “nuadhdhibuh” (we will punish), a plural verb, support our view.  

2. Allah left Dhulqarnayn free to punish them or to treat them well. It teaches us that Allah gave man free will and left him free to choose between things.  

3. We interpret punishment and treating well as educating the community. In order to educate a community that is indulged in evil, it is possible to use the method of punishment or treating well. The politician or the teacher is to decide which one to use. From this point of view, the army of Dhulqarnayn is like an army of education.

"He said: "Whoever doth wrong, him shall we punish; then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before)."

When Allah left Dhulqarnayn free whether to punish them or to treat them well in verse  86, the answer of Dhulqarnayn and his address to that community in verse 87 was as follows:

a) " Whoever doth wrong, him shall we punish."

The phrase “do wrong” is used as “zalama” in the verse. The word zulm means polytheism, which is a wrong belief, to violate others’ rights, and to deny the message sent by Allah to His prophets.

We understand from the phrase “we shall punish” that Dhulqarnayn was not alone and that he went to that country with his army. The verb punish is used with a plural subject.  

On the other hand, it is understood that he would not punish that community because of the injustice, evil, wrong deeds and immoral acts they committed and that he would treat them based on what they would do after he arrived in their land.

We can deduce the following universal principle from it: the leader of the army that conquers a country will not punish the people of that country due to what they did in the past; he will punish them due to the evil deeds that they will commit after the conquest. The oppression, wrong deeds and crimes before the conquest will be forgiven and they will be given the chance to start a new life from the scratch.

b) "Then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before)."

That is, the communities that oppress people, that violate people’s rights and that make life unbearable for them will be punished both in this world and in the hereafter. Oppression is such a bad crime that the punishment in the world is not enough for it.   The remaining part of the punishment will be completed by Allah in the hereafter. The word “nukra” mentioned in the verse denotes punishment or torture that the perception and imagination of man in this world cannot understand and that no words can describe. In other words, the first phase of the punishment is the punishment for the injustice inflicted upon the people, which will be given in this world; the second phase of the punishment is for what is done against Allah, which will be given in the hereafter. As a matter of fact, the concept oppression expresses the injustice done both to people and to Allah, which is polytheism.  

In verse 86, it is not stated what that nation did when Dhulqarnayn was given the permission to punish them. However, in verse 87, it is understood that they oppressed people.

c) In fact, the conquest of that country by the armies of Dhulqarnayn is a kind of punishment for that society; however, Dhulqarnayn brought them justice, truth and knowledge.

The murky water or mud that the sun set in denotes a society in which truth, justice and similar values disappeared. The sun of knowledge, the sun of justice and the sun of truth set and disappeared in that society.  

"But whoever believes, and works righteousness he shall have a goodly reward, and easy will be his task as we order it by our command."

a) As we have mentioned before, after it is stated that those who do wrong things and commit crimes or sins will be punished, what will happen to those who do good deeds are mentioned. It is the style of Allah in the Quran. The opposite of oppression mentioned in verse 87 is given as belief and good deeds in verse 88. Thus, the definition of oppression is given.   

Those who commit bad deeds are punished both in the world and in the hereafter; those who do good deeds are rewarded. That is, everybody will be treated based on their belief and deeds.  

b) Allah will not only reward them but will also give them easy orders. It will be their second reward. What does ‘easy will be his task as we order it by our command’ mean? Muhammad Asad says, “It means to give them orders that are easy to fulfill, to make them carry out easy plans."
 
We answer the question as follows: Those who believe and do good deeds will be given good things in this world and in the hereafter; they will also have the habit, perfection and power to carry out the orders of Allah easily.  

It will be easy for such a person to lead a virtuous life and to practice ethical values; they will never be difficult for him because Allah will help him lead a virtuous life. It will be a reward for him.  

The school of Dhulqarnayn teaches what is bad and good, shows what they will cause and make people conscious about them.

Then followed he (another) way. Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun."

Dhulqarnayn made his second journey to the place where the sun rose, that is the east; he found a people there, too.

We understand from the expression, "people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun" that they were a primitive nation. We understand from the concept ‘primitive’ that they could not make clothes, that their geographical environment had no trees, that there was nothing to provide shade, hence, it was a desert. Besides, they had no civilization to build houses and to live in the shade of the houses.  

The similar aspect of the nation where Dhulqarnayn found in the place the sun set and this nation was that they could not use the phenomena ‘mind’ and ‘knowledge’; and they could not practice them. That nation had to be enlightened and educated. It is a reality that there would be imbalance in the attitudes of that society.

Besides, they did not have clothes that would protect them from the lights of the sun; they did not have the clothes of taqwa that would protect them from their souls and Satan, either. The clothes of taqwa consist of the mind, knowledge and fulfilling the duties assigned by Allah. We understand that they lack the clothes of taqwa, too. That is, they were naked materially and spiritually. That they did not have clothes means they did not have the sense of shame.  

"(He left them) as they were: We completely understood what was before him."

Allah states that He knew what Dhulqarnayn had, that is, his tools of civilization, utilities, power and experience. It means Allah taught Dhulqarnayn whatever he had especially the knowledge he had. Allah covered what Dhulqarnayn had with His knowledge; His knowledge encompassed whatever Dhulqarnayn had. Besides, it was impossible for them to be outside His knowledge.

While explaining the verse, Razi says Dhulqarnayn treated the second nation in the same way as he treated the first nation; that is, he used the method, “punishing the oppressors and treating the believers well” for both the nation in the west and the nation in the east. (Raz, ibid, XXI, 169).

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